Blair's moment of truth

Did Tony "sex up" the Iraq report? A BBC producer offers an exclusive report on the crisis that has brought the prime minister to the brink.


David Akerman
August 30, 2003 11:58PM (UTC)

It is an overcast day in late August, and the deep baritone bell of the Royal Courts of Justice in London strikes 9. A long, sleepy line of bodies flexes and shuffles forward. Many got here before dawn. Several dozed overnight in sleeping bags and tents pitched on the pavement beside the tall, spiked iron railings that circle the building. I joined the line just before 7. This will be no ordinary Thursday.

We have come to see the whites of his eyes. We have come to see Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, prime minister, first lord of the treasury and minister for the civil service, face dangerous questions about his role in events that led to a war in which thousands died, and that also triggered a political and personal tragedy in which a distinguished government scientist killed himself (it is believed though not yet officially confirmed) by slitting his wrists in a woodland outside Oxford.

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This is a story about "sex" and death. For once, no writerly exaggeration is needed to justify the lurid hook. The details are Byzantine, but simply put the issues are these: Did the British government improperly attempt to influence its intelligence services to exaggerate the military dangers presented by Iraq in the period before the war recently fought alongside the United States? And, does the government bear any responsibility for the death of the scientist, Dr. David Kelly, who was the "unauthorized" source for a news story that claimed Downing Street had "sexed up" and inserted information about Saddam's war machine it probably knew to be false in a dossier published last September? It was that news story, first broadcast by BBC national radio in late May, that began the sequence of events that ended with the death of David Kelly.

These have been the darkest days of the Blair project, now more than 6 years old. The once-invincible leader's poll ratings have fallen sharply: The government's long-unassailable lead over a comically fumbling opposition has shrunk to within the margins of error; faith in Blair personally has slumped; even before the death of Kelly the P.M.'s fabled "trust me" Teflon coat was wearing thin over the infuriating failure of postwar reality to match the pre-war rhetoric about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Where are they?

The missing stockpiles of WMD matter far more here than in the U.S. -- although as GIs continue to die and billions of dollars are sucked into the quagmire of the Iraq occupation, the issue may yet come back to haunt President Bush. In Britain the doubts, if not open hostility, have come not just from the traditionally suspicious old left. When the right-leaning, pro-war and generally supportive Economist magazine's front cover emblazoned "Bliar?" across a frowning mug shot of the prime minister in June, then the P.M. has a problem. Even more wounding, though, has been the sadomasochistic spectacle of the government (or important parts of it) locked in ferocious combat with the BBC, still the most powerful broadcaster in the land by far and now a leading media "brand" globally. While virtually all U.K. governments and all BBC regimes are accustomed to guerrilla skirmishing, this ugly war soon went nuclear; a mushroom cloud still looms over both, and neither is showing any signs of backing down.

It is 10.30 a.m. on Day 9 of the judicial inquiry that Blair himself set up immediately after Kelly's body was found on July 18. Inside the large white press marquee planted in an interior precinct of the Royal Courts, 200 journalists gaze at a bank of widescreen TV monitors showing a live video-link into Court 73. Proceedings are not being broadcast on the ruling of the presiding judge, Lord Hutton, a former chief justice of Northern Ireland, a "no-nonsense Ulsterman" according to his admirers. Nonsense, it seems, includes live broadcasts, which has conferred greater influence in the covering of this story back to the written press. Silence falls.

"I don't think we need an introduction," James Dingemans, senior attorney for the inquiry who bears the highest title for a barrister, Queen's Counsel, notes before he begins questioning the prime minister, provoking a brief, stifled titter. Dingemans, though, is no crowd-pleasing Billy Flynn, no razzle-dazzle showman. His manner is precise, measured and dourly direct. He leads Blair quickly to the meat of the BBC's "sexed up" allegations.

The prime minister is dressed as if for a wake -- dark suit, crisp white shirt, sober tie, expensive-looking cuff links. Passionately, at times haltingly, but with an unwavering tone of moral indignation, Blair rejects the charges made by the BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, saying they amounted to an allegation that he was trying to "dupe and defraud" the country. Blair takes particular exception to the reporter's claim, said to be from an "intelligence" official, that "at the behest of Downing Street" the dossier had included intelligence information that Iraq had the ability to use chemical weapons within 45 minutes of orders being given; that this information was included by the government "probably knowing it was wrong" and that the claim was retained in the dossier "against the wishes of the intelligence services." These accusations, Blair says, are "completely absurd." He goes further: "If the allegation had been true it would have merited my resignation." Blair says that such allegations go not just to the heart of his and the government's integrity, but to the integrity of the whole country. What he wants, he says, is a retraction and an apology. He hasn't had one.

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Blair evinces bewildered frustration that the BBC, including its director-general and the board of governors appointed by the government to guarantee the corporation's exacting standards of public-service broadcasting, have failed to retract the original story. The prime minister's exasperation is not entirely surprising. Both the D-G, Greg Dyke, and the BBC's current chairman, Gavyn Davies, were appointed during Blair's tenure and disparaged at the time by Conservative commentators as politically compromised -- both men were accused of being too close to Blair to defend the corporation's independence from government when (not if) it would be needed. Those prognostications of partiality now seem almost amusing. Each man has publicly backed the editorial justification for running Gilligan's story. Like so many administrators of empire before them, the D-G and the chairman have, it seems, "gone native."

Blair made no missteps under questioning, and only a political earthquake could result in his losing his office over the affair. Still, the profound unease about the evidence presented to justify the war, and Blair's role in the way that evidence was presented, continues to cloud his tenure. And in all probability nothing Blair said Thursday changed anyone's mind.

Critics of the Hutton investigation, whose narrow mandate is "to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly," have charged that it was intended to divert attention from the broader issues of how and why Britain went to war in Iraq. Hutton's defenders, though, say his lordship has subtly widened the scope of his hearings to include a comprehensive account of both intelligence-gathering and government strategy that led up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Certainly those who believed, or hoped, that the inquiry would produce a smoking gun have been proven wrong so far. The P.M.'s closest aides and Britain's top intelligence chief have all insisted under questioning that there was no political interference in the preparation of the intelligence dossiers on Iraq. On Tuesday, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, the man officially responsible for controlling and authoring the substantive content of the Iraqi dossier in all its (several) drafts, appeared before the inquiry. The normally invisible Scarlett's unprecedented public appearance in court was enough alone to put the headline writers into a dizzy spin ("The Spy Who came in From the Cold" -- Scarlett is a former MI6 chief in Moscow ); the reporting of Tueday's hearings were suffused with an air of glamorous, spy-thriller secrecy. The precise, balding and slightly snappy spook, however, proved himself every stitch a loyal government player. He robustly and unequivocally rejected any suggestion of improper influence over the dossier from anyone in Downing Street: "I was completely in control of this process" (the compiling of the dossier). "I felt it at the time and feel it subsequently." He dismissed the BBC/Today "sexing up" story of May 29: "I knew instantly that it was absolutely untrue. There was nobody in a better position to know."

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In a significant break with precedent, Scarlett even produced in court a confidential memo written by intelligence officials based on information gathered by MI6 (from an Iraqi military officer "in a position to know") detailing Iraq's ability to fire chemical weapons within 45 minutes of receiving orders. Although key names had been blanked out, the date of the memo was clear -- Aug. 30. This apparently shows that even at a very late date, just three weeks before the publication of the dossier, the intelligence services were properly vetting information about Saddam's military capacity -- against the claim made in the "sexing up" story that Downing Street inserted late changes to the Iraqi dossier for political reasons against the wishes of the intelligence community. (It is undisputed that there were in fact late changes, several of them suggested by Downing Street; Scarlett says that these amendments were on presentational matters and that he was free to choose how to respond to all suggestions.) Gilligan claimed that his source called the inclusion of the 45-minute claim a "classic" example of a late and politically motivated change, according to an article Gilligan subsequently wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper. The source alleged that it was an "uncorroborated" (for which read "unreliable") claim from a single source being "spun" by Downing Street to the dismay of the scrupulous spooks. John Scarlett rebutted that assertion absolutely.

It is shortly before 11 a.m., and Tony Blair is recalling when the press's allegations of executive misconduct really took off. "What really made the thing extremely difficult was the Mail on Sunday article naming Alastair Campbell," he says. "The insertion of Alastair's name meant it was no longer a small item ..." In fact, says Blair, the original radio report "was backed up and had booster rockets put on it" by the more aggressive Mail on Sunday article. Now we're closer to the heart of the matter. For two reasons. First, subsequent to his BBC report of May 29, Andrew Gilligan wrote an article for the leading midmarket, Conservative-supporting Sunday tabloid, in which he went considerably further with his allegations. In particular he claimed his anonymous source had named Tony Blair's former spokesman-turned-current-turned-just-resigned director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell, as the man whose fingerprints were all over the alleged rewriting of the dossier:

"'It was transformed the week before publication, to make it sexier ...' I asked him how this transformation had happened. The answer was a single word -- 'Campbell.'" (Mail on Sunday, June 1, 2003)

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In the six years of Blair government a powerful and slightly absurd demonology has developed around Campbell, who today announced that he would be leaving Downing Street in the next few weeks, along with his long-term partner, Fiona Millar, an assistant to Cherie Blair. Campbell's intention to quit Downing Street for family reasons has been rumoured for weeks; Kelly's death may have prompted a more urgent decision. The British press is speculating that Campbell had become a liability and that Blair is putting the era of "spin" behind him.

In its basest form, Campbell is depicted as "the dark Lord of spin," a shadowy evil genius, the pit-bull alter ego to Tony Blair's teeth-and-smiles Mr. Nice Guy. In American terms, Campbell would be a kind of combination of Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer, only more malevolent. In the view of much of the tabloid press (and beyond) there are almost no limits to the sinister machinations of which Campbell is capable. He is the spirit of Rasputin, Diaghilev, Svengali and Henry Higgins in replicant form. Any perceived political sleight of hand or flattering (for which read "deceptive") presentational gloss emanating from within a 10-mile radius of Downing Street is almost certain to be attributed to Campbell by someone, sometime. He is also frequently cited as the shining exemplar of Tony Blair's "politicization" of the civil service -- Downing Street operations are by convention staffed by civil servants with a clear sense of where the business of government stops (along with their responsibilities) and the business of politics begins (where another team steps forward). This is a line never to be crossed. It's not that simple, of course, and hasn't been for decades.

That Campbell was central to any sensitive Downing Street operation is axiomatic. His formal role in the compiling of the Iraqi dossier was to advise only on "presentational matters" (extended by John Scarlett to include issues of "structure" and "format"), while "ownership" of the document in all matters of intelligence content was to rest with John Scarlett and the Joint Intelligence Committee. This is the line that Campbell himself introduced to the inquiry and held to with epoxy resolve during his much-anticipated evidence to the inquiry last week. Questioned on the allegation that he had been responsible for including the claim about Iraq's 45-minute chemical capability, Campbell denied playing any role: "None whatsoever. I had no input, output, influence upon it whatever at any stage in the process."

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Those words have become totemic in Campbell's defense, recycled endlessly since by commentators and leader-writers who, by general -- albeit sometimes grudging -- consent agree that Campbell barely put a foot wrong in his testimony. Far from the mendacious spinmeister playing fast and loose with freshly "discovered" facts (another allegation Gilligan attributed to his source), Campbell claimed that he actually exercized a restraining influence on the dossier's embryology. Thus his was the Gradgrindian voice calling for facts, facts and nothing but the facts from Scarlett and his team. "I emphasized that the credibility of this document depended fundamentally on it being the work of the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee]. That was the touchstone of our approach from the very start," he told Hutton. Nothing should be published, Campbell told Scarlett, that the intelligence agencies were not "100 percent happy with." Campbell says he regarded Scarlett as an "equal"; he's also on record as calling the Oxford-educated spook his "mate."

Scarlett did not exactly corroborate this. At one point the spymaster told Campbell that they were each playing a role: himself the Smiley-esque "dry intelligence officer," Campbell the "brutal political hatchet man." His sardonic characterization hardly squares with the vision of scrupulous harmony and a proper division of responsibilities that Campbell presented to Court 73.

Campbell also produced some documentary evidence to support the idea that his was a sober voice of restraint. Official minutes from a meeting at Downing Street at which a late draft was under review shows Campbell objecting to the use of the adjectives "vivid" and "horrifying" on the section of the dossier dealing with Iraq's record on human rights. "I thought it was unnecessary, given the facts really were speaking for themselves," he said. The purple prose was duly expunged. Certainly it is evidence of "influence," but evidence that points in the contrary direction to the preferred line of the Campbell conspiracists. An entry on the dossier in Campbell's fabled diary (what multitude of zeros will that generate in the inevitable publishers' auction when the time comes?), from Sept. 11, notes that he had advised Scarlett: "The drier the better, cut the rhetoric." Even the liberal/left-leaning Guardian newspaper opined that Campbell was "edging towards the clear" after his performance at Hutton.

Yet this idealized (or well-spun?) image of disinterested fact-finding frankly ignores equally critical evidence that must color any attentive observer's view of Blair, Campbell and almost every other Downing Street official involved in the dossier's gestation.

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Most glaringly, of course, there is the undeniable fact that on several occasions the government signed off on evidence of Iraq's deadly menace, which proved to be worthless and which it has subsequently had to retract. Most notorious was the "dodgy dossier," a compilation of "intelligence" about Iraq's security apparatus published in February this year, which, it later emerged, had been substantially drawn from an old U.S. graduate paper available on the Internet. That report was described in June by the foreign secretary as "a complete Horlicks" (a disparaging metaphor that refers to a well-known milky bedtime drink). Then there is the now-notorious "yellowcake" claim, which appeared in the September British dossier analyzing Saddam's threat and was repeated by President Bush in his State of the Union address, that Saddam Hussein was attempting to acquire significant quantities of yellowcake, a primitive form of uranium needed to make nuclear weapons, from the African nation of Niger. In fact, the document this claim was based on was a crude forgery. British intelligence officials and Foreign Minister Jack Straw continue to stand by the claim that Iraq was seeking yellowcake from Africa, but have refused to share their alleged intelligence, saying it comes from foreign intel sources.

Then there is the issue of whether the Blair administration directly or indirectly put pressure on the intelligence community to come up with strong evidence, or "sexed up" the dossier itself. Of the first charge, there can be little doubt. Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told the inquiry that in mid-September 2002 he told Blair that it would be inaccurate to say that Saddam represented an imminent threat to either the West or even his neighbors -- yet Blair never communicated this to the British people. And the Hutton inquiry has "discovered" dozens of e-mails between government officials within and without Downing Street that have revealed at least a pattern of eager-beaver enthusiasm to find and persuasively present the "best" case against Saddam. To be sure, the most crucial of these directives contained the phrase "within the bounds of intelligence" -- a caveat that critics have charged was merely "weasel words," there for the sake of defense and deniability. It will no doubt be one of Lord Hutton's tasks to assess whether that critical stipulation was honored more in the breach or the observance. His report (there is no "verdict"; this is not a criminal trial) is due to be published in late September.

Whatever the exact nature of Campbell's role in the selection of the evidence -- the official line is that the communications director's role was to advise on "presentational matters" with which the intelligence services were unfamiliar -- his view on the overall purpose of the dossier was hardly neutral. A diary note on Sept. 5, less than three weeks before publication, asserts: "It had to be revelatory; we needed to show it was new and informative and part of a bigger case."

Back in Court 73, Tony Blair concedes the general point: "It was important that it (the dossier) was the best case we could make." But he insists that the overarching purpose of the dossier was not to prepare the country for war but rather that, following a telephone conversation in August last year with George Bush, he felt the case had to be made that the issue of Iraq and its noncompliance with U.N./Security Council resolutions had to be "dealt with." The prime minister says there was a "clamour" for information of what was known about Iraq to be made public. "I preferred to deal with it through the U.N.," Blair insists. Whatever private understanding he may or may not have had with George Bush -- or private belief that the road he was taking the country down would inevitably end in war -- Blair's version broadly squares with the chronology of his public position through the fall of last year when he was strongly urging the president to take Iraq back to the U.N.

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On the dossier's final form, however, it is undisputed that Campbell -- and Blair (who confirmed it to Hutton) -- had read various early drafts and made comments and suggestions for changes. A confidential memo from Campbell to Scarlett, dated Sept. 17, expressed Tony Blair's personal worries "about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue, particularly in paragraph 18. Can we not go back, on timings, to 'radiological device' in months; nuclear bomb in 1-2 years with help; 5 years with no sanctions ..."

Campbell and presumably Blair also made some late changes to the claim about Saddam's 45-minute capability with chemical weapons. One senior defense intelligence official agreed, under questioning at the inquiry, that the claim appears in "noticeably harder" language in Tony Blair's foreword to the dossier than in the body of the dossier. Specifically, the word "may" used in reference to the potential threat was replaced by the word "are." Campbell has said that he simply wanted to resolve an inconsistency, but the inconsistency was resolved in favor of the less ambiguous and more menacing form. The ambiguity could have been resolved in the other direction. It wasn't.

Moreover, there is evidence that at least some members of the defense intelligence team responsible for drafting the document were unhappy with the toughened wording on the 45-minute claim. John Scarlett admitted to the inquiry that a group of the dossier's originators had requested that the 45-minute claim be hedged with the caveat, "intelligence suggests." It wasn't.

What has emerged in the evidence from Campbell, Scarlett and Blair is a clear and uniform position on all the substantive allegations made in the Gilligan stories. "Ownership" of the dossier was with Scarlett; Campbell's role was limited to presentation, which, said Scarlet, he found "quite useful." While the claim about the 45-minute chemical capability was based on a single source, it was Scarlett's judgment to include it in the dossier. Questioned by Dingemans on any doubts about the claim, Blair says, "There was no reason for us to doubt that intelligence at all." Equally the prime minister had no knowledge of any "unhappiness" in the intelligence services with compilation of the dossier: "Absolutely not, no," says Blair. John Scarlett had already testified that there were no "rows" between the "dry intelligence officer" and the "brutal political hatchet man," or with anyone else.

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Case closed? Not quite, My Lord. And certainly not in the pages of the British press.

It is only to be expected perhaps that reactions to Hutton would be polarized, but the most striking feature of the newspaper coverage of the inquiry is the extent to which attitudes have mostly been a fixed and faithful reflection of their attitudes to the war in Iraq itself. Hence, for Britain's biggest-circulation tabloid, the Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch -- no friend to the BBC, it must be said), John Scarlett's evidence "blew apart once and for all the BBC's false claim that Downing Street sexed up the Iraqi dossier ... This whole charade, wasting public time and money, is the direct result of BBC incompetence." Right below it on the newsstand, however, the Sun's rival, the war-skeptical Daily Mirror, opined that John Scarlett had suffered a surprising and "startling memory lapse"; his evidence exonerating Blair and Campbell was, said the Mirror, "accompanied by the crashing sound of ranks being closed."

Back in Court 73 Tony Blair is presented with an e-mail that earlier this week was gleefully received by the skeptical press and those minded to find a smoking gun among all the dry, semantic nitpicking. Dated Sept. 11, 2002, it emanates from Scarlett's team in response to a Downing Street request for more evidence against Saddam. In a half-page missive littered with exclamation marks (seized upon by some as evidence of the frustration felt by those under insufferable pressure to deliver more and more damning evidence), it lists four points on which No. 10 wants better information, including "personalities" that can be attached to the chemical and biological weapons procurement programs, any evidence that Iraq has sought to recruit "foreign experts, in particular in the nuclear field," and "more details on the items procured for their nuclear programme." The e-mail concludes with some attitude: "I appreciate everyone, us included, has been round at least some of these buoys before, particularly item 4. But No 10 through the Chairman want the document to be as strong as possible within the bounds of available intelligence. This is therefore a last (!) call for any items of intelligence that agencies think can and should be included."

This importunate round-robin clearly at least resonates with Gilligan's original story and resulted in a flood of headlines about "frantic" and "desperate" searches to "beef up" the dossier. Yet there is nothing necessarily improper about searches for evidence, even frantic ones, unless of course they result in errors, or "information" has been invented, cherry-picked or abused. That will be for Lord Hutton to decide, though the current polarization of opinion in Britain (even among those paying little or no attention to the details of the inquiry) means that he may well be the last person in the land to have reached a conclusion.

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That government officials have also been obliged to disclose unfortunate attitudes and embarrassing mistakes during the last three months is clear. One Downing Street e-mail submitted to the inquiry refers cavalierly to a "game of chicken" being played with the BBC, a reference to how the corporation might be forced to back down and name its source for the Gilligan story. In fact it never did. That gaffe was matched by the description by a Downing Street official (he thought off the record) of David Kelly as a "Walter Mitty" figure. He was obliged to apologize.

As for the BBC, it has ended up with its own share of egg on its face. In its preliminary statement to the Hutton inquiry, the BBC defended its decision to air Gilligan's original story. That position remains, but in recent weeks embarrassing cracks in the corporation's unity over the issue have opened. The corporation has also admitted that the occasional description of its anonymous source (Kelly) as being from the intelligence services was "an error which the BBC regrets." A senior government scientist and microbiologist, Kelly had access to intelligence but was employed by the Ministry of Defense. Unsurprisingly, the corporation also defends its decision to broadcast the "sexing up" claims by citing articles in several broadsheet newspapers, including the Observer, the Guardian and the Sunday Times, that have been critical of the dossier based on their own intelligence and other sources alleged to be unhappy with the political "spin" to which raw data was subjected.

The most excruciating moment for BBC managers, however, came during the Hutton inquiry itself, when another BBC correspondent accused her seniors of attempting to pressure her into "corroborating" the Gilligan story in a way she described as "misguided and false." Susan Watts is science editor for the late-night TV news and current affairs show "Newsnight" (the closest U.S. equivalent is "Nightline"). She too had broadcast reports based partly on anonymous briefings from Kelly (whose identity she did not disclose to BBC management). Watts, however, believed her reports differed significantly from Gilligan's: She did not claim that Downing Street had inserted the 45-minute claim into the dossier, knowing it to be false; neither did she link the concerns of the intelligence community to Alastair Campbell. Unlike Andrew Gilligan, who recorded his talk with Kelly after the meeting on an electronic organizer, Susan Watts took contemporaneous notes and taped her telephone conversation with Kelly.

Bizarrely, Kelly had made the allegation about Alastair Campbell's role in the 45-minute claim three weeks earlier to Watts, who had dismissed it as "a gossipy aside." After hearing the Gilligan story Watts called Kelly back to ask him if she had "missed a trick." This time Kelly said he couldn't say for sure if Campbell had been responsible, but he believed the No. 10 press office to have been responsible and "Alastair Campbell is synonymous with that press office ..."

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BBC managers deny any attempt to pressure Susan Watts, who hired her own lawyers rather than use the corporation's, and say they were genuinely "struck by the similarities" between the Gilligan and Watts stories.

The BBC's embarrassment goes further, however. Despite an initially robust and supportive attitude to his correspondent, Gilligan's immediate boss, Kevin Marsh, the editor of "Today," clearly had second thoughts in June. In an unfortunate coincidence of timing, on the 27th of that month, while the BBC's head of news was stoutly defending Gilligan and the BBC's editorial judgment in a letter to Alastair Campbell, Gilligan's editor at "Today" was typing an e-mail in which he described Gilligan's story as "a good piece of investigative journalism marred by flawed reporting our biggest milestone has been his loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology."

The BBC's procedures for editorial control and supervision, however, seem likely to come under review inside the Corporation sooner or later. One aspect of the Gilligan story that has attracted little media attention is that the report which caused all the fuss was in the form of a live interview between Gilligan and one of the two presenters of the "Today" program. That such a potentially -- some would say predictably -- inflammatory story could be delivered unscripted (therefore unlawyered) in the form of a conversation seems, to say the least, surprising. Little reported this aspect of the story may be, but it didn't escape the hawk-eyed Economist magazine: "To allow a reporter to broadcast such an explosive story, live and unscripted from home" (Gilligan often worked from home) was foolhardy. No quality newspaper would print such a story, from a single anonymous source, without further checks. Investigative reporters need to be kept on a tight rein. Gilligan -- who was hired by the previous editor of Today to 'make trouble' -- was not."

The supreme irony that has crowned the fierce struggle between the BBC and the government is that each party's criticism of the other is significantly focused on an identical point of principle about information derived from a single source. Gilligan's story was critical of the single (Iraqi) source for the 45-minute chemical claim; the government lambasts the BBC partly for airing Gilligan's story based on a single source (Kelly), though to this it adds a grievance that no appropriate opportunity was given for the government to respond to (deny) the claims made in Gilligan's report.

That Alastair Campbell has written letters of complaint about the work of some BBC correspondents (Gilligan among them) is well known in the journalistic world here. Indeed since 9/11, the onset of the global war on terrorism and the Afghan war, Campbell has been waging a campaign asking the BBC to review what he regards as an inappropriate "moral equivalence" being implicitly embedded in some correspondents' reporting, witting or otherwise. The gravamen of Campbell's charge has been that while the actions and claims of governments (especially the U.S. and U.K. governments) are routinely questioned or treated skeptically, the claims and staged events organized by militants and even terror groups such as al-Qaida, are reported with far less skepticism or scrutiny. That debate isn't going to be over soon.

11:28 a.m. Debates about journalistic practice and ethics are one thing. The suicide of a senior government scientist is quite another. When Dingemans moved on to questions about the death of Dr. Kelly, Tony Blair knew that his answers must be precise, defensible and consistent. This part of the hearing was always going to be tougher for him. In contrast to the protection from the "sexing up" allegations previous witnesses had offered the P.M., more than one witness, including the defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, had let it be known that searching questions about Kelly could only be answered by No. 10. Blair had virtually no choice but to accept responsibility for the events that followed Kelly's self-identification as the possible source of Andrew Gilligan's story.

He did: "The responsibility is mine, at the end of the day. I take the decisions as prime minister." But, said Blair, his motivations to act as he did -- first to let it be known that an unnamed official had come forward to his government bosses and stated that he could have been Andrew Gilligan's source, and then to approve the decision to name Kelly -- were made in very difficult circumstances. "I really was not sure what was the right way to handle this situation," said Blair, adding, "If it was clear that he was the source then we were going to have to disclose that."

Blair had more explaining to do, though, not least of the extraordinary route by which Kelly's identity was finally made public.

After quasi-revealing himself, Kelly had been "outed" by a slippery government decree to name him indirectly by way of a febrile game of catechism played over 36 hours between journalists and government press officers. Guess right, the hacks were told, and we'll confirm his name. They did -- it wasn't hard after several heavy hints were dropped by sources, including officials from No. 10. His name first appeared in the press on July 10. Within a week Kelly had been interrogated -- some say roasted -- by two Parliamentary committees and warned about possible disciplinary action by his bosses at the Ministry of Defense.

Blair's afresh admission of "full responsibility" for the decision in principle to name Kelly is a clear volte face on his previous assertions to journalists that the scientist's outing was not at his behest. That is one discomfort. How gravely Lord Hutton will view the P.M.'s late candor is a matter of speculation. Blair pressed the point that he had insisted on senior officials being party to the decisions taken about the Kelly conundrum: "The reason why I was so anxious that we dealt with this with the senior civil servants in a collective way, was so that the decision that we took was done as far as possible by consensus." Blair said the consensus view was that Kelly's name would inevitably become public soon and it was important that the government could not be accused of concealing anything, including Kelly's identity, especially from two separate Parliamentary committees investigating the decision to go to war with Iraq.

"In view of the sensitivity of this it was best to be open," Blair declared, adding more than once, "I wanted to be able to say we had done this by the book," before conceding somewhat sheepishly that in such singular circumstances there really is no book.

The last hour of the hearing saw a different Tony Blair. There was perceptibly less confidence in his body language, more stumbling, unfinished sentences, more playing with his spectacles. Blair was once a practicing barrister. A shade of courtroom theatricality crept into his performance. (One newspaper even sent its theater critic to review his performance: He gave Blair three stars.) There were rueful sighs, hands-in-the-air gestures conveying his horrible dilemma, exasperated pursed lips and, it must be said, a far greater quotient of sorrowful and importunate "My Lord" addresses to the no-nonsense Ulsterman in the chair. His twin-track narrative was clear. First of all, he needed to get the facts right. The version that Kelly gave to his bosses of his exchanges with Andrew Gilligan cast doubt on whether he could be the sole source for the original report. Blair -- and later Defense Secretary Hoon -- tried in vain to persuade the BBC to confirm the source of their story, hoping, perhaps, that if the BBC went public with the name, it would relieve the government from having to devise a strategy and inure it from charges that it had exposed Kelly to unbearable pressure. That, according to Blair, was also the reason for the delay between announcing that an official had come forward and revealing Kelly's identity. "It was a short breathing space," said Blair. (That any news organization would voluntarily release the name of an anonymous source, or that the British government would believe they would, strains credulity.)

Still, if Blair himself was -- or seemed -- open in these late exchanges with Dingemans, he was less than fully clear. The precise chronology and lines of responsibility for the eccentric game of catechism that led to Kelly's final "outing" is not clear.

Was Blair convincing? Certainly this was not his most polished or fluent performance. But perhaps too high a finish would have cast doubt on his sincerity, laid him open to the charge that his responses had all been scripted in advance by -- who else? -- the now-departing Alastair Campbell. His performance, in all its shades, was probably effective, perhaps as much because of, rather than despite, the hesitancies, the stumbles, the occasional "don't knows."

And the elephant in the corner of the room, the embarrassing truth about Kelly's terrible fall, is that he does not emerge from the story with a halo. Tribute has been rightly paid to his record of public service and professional skill as an expert scientist (Kelly was also part of the original UN weapons inspectors team charged with diasarming Iraq after the first Gulf War). Not so far from the minds of many, though, is the fact that Kelly spoke to not two but three BBC journalists in what looks like a systematic campaign to undermine the integrity of the September dossier that he had played some part in compiling. When he volunteered himself as Gilligan's possible source he misled the Ministry of Defense with a highly sanitized version of his contact with Gilligan, creating real (but unfounded) doubt about whether he was the real source for the story. He was. He disputed his account of his contacts with Susan Watts, too. But she had a tape, and was demonstrably telling the truth. Kelly went on to mislead the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, telling them: "I do not see how he (Andrew Gilligan) could make the authoritative statement he was making from the comments I had made." If it is true that the real danger lies not in the crime but in the coverup, then Dr Kelly may be judged to have authored his own coverup.

Next week David Kelly's widow, Janice, will appear before the judicial inquiry. It may be that the testimony of a grieving widow will do as much if not more damage to the government than all the evidence offered by the senior government officials, Downing Street operatives, journalists and the paper trail of memos, minutes and e-mails now under scrutiny in court No. 73.

12.45 p.m. Outside the Royal Courts of Justice lines of police hold back a thin line of "Stop the War" protesters waiting for Tony Blair's departure. In less than a minute the P.M.'s sleek armour-plated Jaguar sweeps through the gates and heads east up the Strand toward the City of London's financial district. Security is highly coordinated these days -- a decoy car swings out ahead of Blair's, all traffic is halted to give the vehicle uninterrupted safe passage away from the building, the P.M.'s car is accompanied by a ring of outriders. Very presidential.

I watch the P.M.'s car disappear toward the City, unlock my bicycle and swing out onto the Strand going west. I can't resist, there's no special point to it but on my way home I want to cycle by the place where all this began -- the Charing Cross Hotel, three minutes' ride away, where Kelly met Andrew Gilligan on May 22, as it happens also a Thursday. It's an undistinguished edifice of four or five stories built over Charing Cross railway station, next to Trafalgar Square. Nothing much to see. Next to the metro entrance is a newsstand selling the early edition of London's daily paper, the Evening Standard, but it's too soon for the paper to be carrying reports of the Blair hearings. As I pedal past I catch sight of the billboard. It reads "British soldier killed in Iraq."


David Akerman

David Akerman is a producer for the BBC.

MORE FROM David Akerman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

British Election Iraq Middle East National Security

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